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Bond, Patrick  (2009) SA political power balance shifts left – but not enough to stem protests.  : -.

In his book The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s famous ‘pitfalls of national consciousness’ chapter warned, ‘The national middle class discovers its historic mission: that of intermediary.… the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the mask of neocolonialism.’

An international banker interviewed by journalist Joe Hanlon saw through the camouflage of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe shortly after he attained power in 1980: ‘I feel it is a political pattern that Mugabe give radical, anti-business speeches before government makes major pro-business decisions or announcements’.

Both Mugabe and some in the ANC leadership invoke liberation struggle culture as a reminder to their constituents of better times, when the leading politicians were really revolutionaries, rather than what they soon became: elites for whom statist economic policies represent not a road to ‘African socialism’ or even effective Keynesianism or an aspirant East Asian development state, but instead: quite blatantly corrupt crony capitalism.

Two months ago, just prior to the election, Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini recognized this adverse balance of forces: ‘There is an anti-communist, anti-workers sentiment we are picking up. We can’t accept that. This ANC was rescued by the workers. This is why I say it is a declaration of war.’

President Jacob Zuma’s subsequent cabinet appointments reflected not a labour victory in the class war, but nevertheless an outcome fairly favourable to the Alliance Left.

For example, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande and economist Rob Davies are ministers of higher education and of trade/industry, respectively. Other SACP notables migrating from long parliamentary careers to deputy ministries are Jeremy Cronin (transport), and Yunus Carrim (local government).

Three obvious omissions, though, are the two Mbeki-era left-leaning ministers, Pallo Jordan (communications) and Zola Skweyiya (social welfare), and the former deputy health minister, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, fired by Mbeki for opposing AIDS-denialist policies in 2007, enthusiastically defended by the SACP and health activists, but subsequently dropped from Zuma’s list.

In spite of falling interest rates and a rising budget deficit, broad continuity not change lies ahead on the macroeconomic front. Overall economic ‘planning’ – a new ministerial position within the presidency - is headed by the Left’s bête noire, Trevor Manuel. (Tellingly, when appointed to lead the ANC Department of Economic Planning 18 years ago, he renamed it the ‘Department of Economic Policy’.)

Economic development strategy will be championed by a new minister, Ebrahim Patel, who was Cosatu’s main advocate of ‘corporatism’ (big government, big labour and big capital working together) within the National Economic Development and Labour Council, when he led the clothing/textile workers’ union.

And the new finance minister is former tax commissioner Pravin Gordhan, a long-time Zuma associate with a communist background but technocratic post-apartheid record.

But if Zuma offers the Alliance Left merely personal career concessions, Nzimande’s article in the Umsebenzi Online edition two days before Zuma’s inauguration reveals a knowing cynicism about SA’s party-patronage system: ‘The SACP will not allow itself to be used as a stepping stone to positions in the ANC and government only to be abandoned by some of those cadres once they occupy such positions.’

Abandonment would be one logical reaction to extreme flashpoints of conflict now exploding across the horizon: dramatic job losses, state failure to keep wage promises, public transport restructuring, the healthcare crisis and huge electricity price increases.

And class strife will only increase, because thanks to Manuel’s liberalization of trade and finance, SA now has amongst the world’s highest current account deficits and is the most economically vulnerable emerging market, according to The Economist magazine.

The 6.4% quarterly GDP decline for early 2009 was the worst crash since 1984. Even in late 2008 it was apparent that labour would suffer vast retrenchments, with a 67% reduction in average work hours per factory worker, the biggest decline since 1970.

The economy is likely to shed a half-million jobs in 2009, especially in manufacturing and mining. January 2009 alone witnessed a 36% crash in new car sales and 50% production cut, the worst ever recorded, according to the National Association of Auto Manufacturers. The anticipated rise in port activity has also reversed, with a 29% annualized fall in early 2009. Repossessed houses increased by 52% in early 2009 from a year earlier.

Last week’s protests across SA show how angry communities are, from thousands of Warwick Junction traders and their families threatened by Mike Sutcliffe with eviction, to 5000 Mashisheng (Lydenburg) anti-corruption protesters (one of whom, Jacob Malakane, was shot dead by police), to homeless people in Cape Town’s Macassar and Durban’s Lamontville, to public sector workers whose pay packets are unbearably small.

(In a rare victory, a protest by the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and groundWork against Shell Oil was rewarded in Monday’s out-of-court settlement, in which Ken Saro-Wiwa’s family and other Ogonis won $15 million in reparations for the 1995 murder of the Nigerian pacifist poet-activist.)

Last week, as a bus drivers’ strike that nearly shut down Johannesburg once solidarity strikes were threatened, plus a national one-day public-sector doctors’ stay-away, 2000 metalworkers protested at the SA Reserve Bank to demand a large cut in interest rates.

That protest was notable not only because it reflected the hunger and confidence of angry workers to move beyond the point of production to defend jobs, but also because it unveiled the arrogance of the central bank officials who refused to accept the metalworkers’ memo of grievances.

Metalworkers union president Irwin Jim reacted: ‘Anyone who rejects peaceful demonstrations and refuses to accept petitions from the South African working class, who are experiencing extreme economic and social difficulties not of their own making, is inviting big trouble. You are warned.’

After a backlash by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe – claiming ‘the door is open’ – the Young Communist League president David Masondo replied, ‘Yes, the door is open but the opening is very small for the working class to make an impact.’

So the Left continues banging on the door to open it yet wider. According to recently released data, the SA police measured more than 30,000 ‘gatherings’ - 15 or more people in some form of protest, for which permission is typically applied for a week ahead of time - from 2004-07. Of these, 10 percent generated ‘unrest’.

Researchers in China registered more social protests per person than SA during the first quarter of 2009, for the first time, but I’m not aware of any other country that has been close.

Such figures are set to climb in both countries, unless more state concessions are made to those with genuine grievances, at a time the hapless private sector is shrinking fast.

(Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society.)

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